In 1974, Richard Nixon became the first American President to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel—as well as Syria—on a swing intended to chalk up triumphs abroad and, more pointedly, to divert attention from the escalating Watergate crisis at home. It was a reassuring trip for the beleaguered President. He promoted a new peace process and talked up a regional realignment to stabilize the Middle East after the 1973 war. Leaders fêted him. Flag-waving crowds lined the streets, even in Damascus.
The trip didn’t change his fate. Two months later, Nixon resigned.
This weekend, Donald Trump will escape the turmoil of his Presidency for a tour of the Middle East. He, too, will stop in Saudi Arabia and Israel. He, too, is talking about Middle East peace and a regional realignment, this time a coalition made up of Israel and the conservative Sunni monarchies, centered around the Gulf sheikhdoms, Egyptians, and Jordanians. He, too, is expected to be fêted. The world’s most volatile region will offer Trump a diversion from Washington for at least a week.
On his first Presidential trip abroad, Trump has outsized ambitions—both naïve and godlike—laden with religious symbolism from all three Abrahamic faiths. He’ll visit the birthplace of Islam; the Jewish homeland; the birthplace of Jesus, in Bethlehem; and, then, the Vatican. “What President Trump is seeking is to unite peoples of all faiths around a common vision of peace, progress, and prosperity,” the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, told reporters on Friday. A senior Administration official said that Trump’s goal is “making sure that the three faiths work together.” Good luck.
Saudi Arabia is an unusual choice for Trump’s first stop as President, given his attitude toward the country during the Presidential campaign. He complained that the U.S. backs the kingdom “at tremendous expense,” and “we get nothing for it”; he tied the kingdom to the 9/11 attacks; and he wrote on his Facebook page, “Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays. Hillary must return all money from such countries!” Just last month, Trump told Reuters, “Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly, because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia.”
For the United States, Saudi Arabia is a second-tier ally, at best. The State Department’s latest Human Rights Report, issued by the Trump Administration, in March, faults the monarchy for one of the world’s worst records. In a checklist of bad practices, the State Department cites violence against women; restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, movement, and religion; arbitrary arrests; denial of due process by the judiciary; prosecuting human-rights activists and reformers; prisoner abuse; and pervasive discrimination based on gender, religion, race, and ethnicity. “Lack of governmental transparency and access made it difficult to assess the magnitude of many reported human rights problems,” it concludes.
The White House said that Saudi Arabia reached out to Jared Kushner and unnamed others shortly after the election to encourage an early visit. In Riyadh, Trump will meet King Salman, hold a summit with a half-dozen leaders from the Gulf sheikhdoms, and dine with dozens of senior officials from the region. He’ll start building his new coalition of conservative Middle East leaders there, too.
“He will develop a strong, respectful message that the United States and the entire civilized world expects our Muslim allies to take a strong stand against radical Islamist ideology, an ideology that uses a perverted interpretation of religion to justify crimes against all humanity,” McMaster said. “He will call for Muslim leaders to promote a peaceful vision of Islam.”
This is the same message that was repeatedly conveyed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama over the sixteen years since the 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda. Both men ended up frustrated by a country that produced Wahhabism, the conservative brand of Islam that seeded extremist ideologies, and was the homeland of Osama bin Laden and thousands of jihadi fighters who joined Al Qaeda and ISIS.
On his first trip to the kingdom, Obama tried to convince King Abdullah to make a concrete gesture to help revive the peace process. He also thought that his staff had brokered a deal for the monarchy to absorb all the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The king turned him down flat on both, according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., Pentagon, and National Security Council staffer and the author of a forthcoming book on U.S.-Saudi relations.
“It was a disaster,” he told me. “Obama visited Saudi Arabia more than any President. He also sold more weapons to the kingdom—a hundred and twelve billion dollars’ worth—than any American President. He got very little to show for it.”
Franklin Roosevelt was the first American President to hold a summit with a Saudi leader, in 1945, after his Yalta conference with Churchill and Stalin. He met King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, in the Suez Canal. F.D.R. discussed plans to create a homeland for European Jews in Palestine. The king vehemently opposed the idea. But the two leaders did broker a deal that held for the intervening seven decades—through thirteen U.S. Presidents and five Saudi monarchs—to swap U.S. military support for access to Saudi oil.
The Trump Administration is reportedly brokering a hefty arms deal worth a hundred billion dollars, though the foundation of the two countries’ friendship seems less certain today, given the growing self-sufficiency in energy in the U.S. and questions about Saudi Arabia’s long-term political stability. “The kingdom had unusually good leadership for a long period of time,” Riedel told me. “In 1979, you could have predicted the future kings and the order they’d be in. That’s over.”
King Salman, who is ailing and reportedly shows signs of dementia, has effectively created a new line of succession through his inexperienced, thirty-one-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, leapfrogging dozens of princes in the royal family who expected to be king. Mohammed bin Salman is the Minister of Defense, the deputy crown prince, and the chairman of the powerful Council for Economic and Development Affairs, which is charting a new economic future—roles that make him the second most powerful man in the kingdom. He makes many major decisions, current and former U.S. officials told me. He made the call to intervene in neighboring Yemen, in 2015, in a war that is increasingly compared to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. The Saudis depend on U.S. warplanes and matériel to wage their campaign. This spring, the king appointed another of his sons to be the new Ambassador to the United States.
In Israel, Trump is due to meet the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, to discuss the first steps in a renewed peace process. The two men have close ties, partly through the Kushner family, which has long been involved in Israeli causes. On a visit to the United States several years ago, Netanyahu stayed at the Kushners’ home—and slept in Jared’s bedroom. (Jared, then a teen-ager, camped in the basement, according to the Times.) Despite all the ties, the Israeli press reports that Netanyahu is nervous about what Trump—who shows few signs of understanding either history or diplomacy—might ask of him.
Trump is also scheduled to travel to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, in what is now the West Bank, to meet the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. The two met earlier this month, in Washington, when Trump expressed confidence that he could produce peace between Israel and the Arabs. “It’s something that I think is frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought,” he said, at a joint press conference. Last week, Abbas expressed willingness to meet his Israeli counterpart—notably, without preconditions such as a halt to new settlements in the West Bank. While Trump talks about Middle East peace as just another deal that needs to be transacted, the core issues—including the status of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital—remain as thorny for Trump as they were for every President since Nixon.
Trump may get the coolest reception at the Vatican. Trump initially praised the election of Pope Francis, in 2013. “The new Pope is a humble man, very much like me, which probably explains why I like him so much!” Trump tweeted, on Christmas Day in 2013. But the President, who made billions in real estate, and the Pontiff, who eschewed the apostolic palace to live “a normal life” at a clerical guest house, have distinctly different world views. During the U.S. Presidential campaign, the Holy Father tweeted, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Trump called the comment “disgraceful.”
The Pontiff has been discreet, implying but not naming the new American President. In February, after Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, the Pope tweeted, “How often in the Bible the Lord asks us to welcome migrants and foreigners, reminding us that we too are foreigners!”
En route home from Portugal on Saturday, Pope Francis told reporters that he would be candid but respectful with the President. “I never make a judgment about a person without hearing him out,” the Pontiff said. In his conversations with world leaders, Pope Francis said that he always looks for “doors that are at least a little bit open” to build mutual agreement. “Peace is artisanal,” he said. “You do it every day.”
President Trump has never brokered peace. And, unlike Richard Nixon, he has never negotiated a transformative diplomatic deal. The Middle East may offer warmer optics. But the trip is unlikely to produce big breakthroughs—or alter the tumultuous challenges Trump will face when he returns home.